HomeAsk Deke: How can I breathe new life and sound into our chorus?

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Q: Old chorus… old members… old attitudes… old songs…

Resistant to improving or changing. We need help with trying to keep the chorus in pitch.

We have a younger director of 4 yrs who is an 11 year member. She sings in pitch when demonstrating as she teaches, but the group's default settings always take over, and the chorus is always flat.

How can I breathe new life and sound into our chorus?

~ Linda

A: “Change is hard. Nobody really wants to change.”

This was my big takeaway when learning about my wife’s change management MBA courses, and it’s basically true. People want things to be different, but often don’t actually take the necessary steps toward that greater goal, be it eating less, exercising more, or stepping away from spending so much time reading advice columns on computer screens (ahem).

However, it seems as though your group isn’t even interested in the idea of change, let alone taking the requisite steps. You want to go on a diet, meanwhile they’re happy with their fudge brownies. And as is the case in every a cappella group, you need others to agree with you before you can make everything happen. So, let’s take these one by one.

“Old Chorus... old members”: My previous column was about this very topic. Check it out and see if there’s something useful there <link here>

“Old Attitudes… old songs”: My sense is that you are in a Sweet Adeline or Harmony Incorporated Chorus, which is not a bad thing at all. However, the challenge is to make traditional music compelling to new generations of singers, or else the chorus will eventually fold, and the style disappear. Many discussions happen on this very topic at many a barbershop event, and in fact I delivered the Barbershop Harmony Society keynote address earlier this year on the topic of capturing more attention for the style, which may be of interest.

“Singing flat”: My guess is that your group isn’t always singing flat per se at all times, but rather that some members are not holding pitch, and the result of unsupported singing, relaxing the ends of lines, and overall exhaustion or lack of energy is resulting in a general downward drift throughout the song. This can be remedied with vowels, excitement, and perhaps pitching the song down a half step if a specific song is too high, but I get the sense that the malaise is a spiritual one more than a theoretical one.

“How can I breathe new life and sound”: This is the question that ties all the above questions together, and it really gets to the core of why everyone comes together once a week to rehearse. Is it primarily social? An emotional outlet? To compete? To win over new fans? To spread joy through harmony? My guess is that it’s all of the above for everyone, to varying degrees.

To this end, I offer a two-step solution:

1) Approach the leaders of your group and let them know your concerns. Try to be specific rather than general, and refrain from hyperbole as much as possible (a statement like “we’re always flat” is likely to put your director on the defensive, even if you don’t mean to). Instead of complaining about what you don’t want or like, see if you can offer a vision as to what the chorus would ideally look like with the new life and energy you’re speaking about. What kind of songs? What kind of gigs? I find a carrot works better than a stick, honey catches more flies, etc. when discussing hobbies and social activities, which is what community choral singing fundamentally is.

2) If you don’t have any luck, or the chorus is basically happy with things they way they are, perhaps consider starting another chorus. The Contemporary A Cappella League exists to help adults start new a cappella groups and choirs of all sizes and levels. You could sing some old songs and some newer songs. You could build the group to be the size and energy level you want. I’ll bet there are many people in your community who would be drawn to it, as harmony singing grows and grows in popularity. Plus, if your old group was all-female, there’s no reason your new one could have mixed voices (just a thought).

Of course if you take the latter course, you’ll need to be careful to make it clear you’re not trying to create a competing chorus through the same organization. You of course wish your existing group well, you just want something different. Ideally, you can be sister choirs, have concerts together, perhaps even share members (if some people would like to sing a second night of the week). The last thing you want is to spark some kind of a cappella turf war. There are so very many people who want to sing that there’s “plenty of room at the salad bar for all of us.”